This One Couldn’t Be Crushed

“I was in the storeroom upstairs, stacking things as they arrived, and every ten minutes in walked this crippled but indefatigable gnome, hauling another box full of glasses.”
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Herbert was a crooked little man. The left side of his body was straight, but his right shoulder and hip tilted down. This gave him a lopsided walk, as if he were wearing a cowboy boot on one foot and a slipper on the other. Because his right hip also angled out, his right foot pointed forty-five degrees to the outside, while his left foot pointed straight ahead. He was afflicted with both scoliosis (sideways curvature of the spine) and congenital hypothyroidism (formerly called cretinism). Congenital hypothyroidism is a severe deficiency of thyroid hormone in newborn babies; it can lead to stunted growth and intellectual disabilities. Herbert was 4’11” and had a mental age of three.

Herbert was forty years old. He wore glasses, and had the nondescript face of a middle-aged clerk who had spent his life in a cramped office in some dusty, forgotten building. His shirtsleeves were usually rolled up, revealing solid arms and knobby elbows. His light brown hair was thinning and generally looked mussed, in spite of the enormous plastic comb that always protruded from his front pants pocket.

Despite the asymmetry of his walk, there was a certain constancy to it. While other clients hurried or dawdled, depending on the circumstances, Herbert did not, so he was often among the first clients to arrive at the workfloor, and among the last to arrive at the lunchroom. The years had graced him with a steadiness that overruled both eagerness and reluctance. He would go where he was going and would accept what lay ahead.

Herbert couldn’t read or write or count. He had echolalia, so a lot of his speech was repetitive. If I said, “Hi there,” he’d respond, “Hi there!” If I gave him a quick wave in the morning, he’d give me a quick wave back. Once when I was testing his knowledge of tools, I held up a hammer and said, “Herbert, what’s this?”

“This!” he replied.

“Yeah, Herbert, what is this tool?”

“Tool?”

“That’s right, it’s a tool, but do you remember what it’s called?”

“Called?”

“Okay, Herbert, thank you.”

“Thank you!”

When Herbert was sanding a board or steelwooling a glass, his hand moved back and forth gently, not applying any pressure, while his eyes stared off into space. Hypnotized by the constant, unchanging motion, he could do a task like this for thirty, forty, fifty minutes, never raising his hand, rarely saying a word, and slowly fading into the twilight of a supervisor’s consciousness. Being left alone was something he had gotten used to, years ago.

When Herbert was packing glasses, however, his state of mind was anything but trance-like. This was one job he was able to master; he even developed his own technique. Instead of picking up a glass and wrapping a sheet of newspaper around it, the way everyone else did, Herbert would set the sheet on the table. Then he’d roll the glass—and with it, the paper—from one end of the sheet to the other. Finally, he’d take the excess paper at the top and at the bottom of the glass, and fold it over sharply. The glasses wrapped by other clients often looked lumpy, but Herbert’s glasses were crisp and precise, like works of origami. When Herbert was steelwooling, his productivity rate was only one to two percent of the average worker’s, and his progress on each glass was glacial. When he was packing, his productivity rate soared to thirty percent, and you could actually see his work take shape.

Herbert was amiable and good-natured, a favorite of both clients and staff. He got along well with the other residents at his group home, where he spent his time watching TV, listening to music, and playing with his Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs. Most of all he enjoyed taking walks.

There was one thing he could get testy about, though. He liked to spend around forty-five minutes in the shower; by the time he was done, there would be no hot water left for the other residents. He was uncharacteristically adamant about this, and became belligerent whenever the counselors told him to speed it up.

For those of us who worked at the Center, laughter was one of the job’s great pleasures. As long as we were on the workfloor, supervisors were nagged by doubts and worries. Am I helping my clients as much as I can? Is the quality of our products as good as it should be? Should I challenge a client’s behavior or should I let it go? After the clients went home, however, we left our work areas behind and gathered in the office to swap stories and fill out paperwork. It was the most relaxing hour of the day. Funny incidents and strange remarks, confrontations and Code 9s, the clients who brightened our day and the clients we could barely control—all of this was recounted, as we reflected upon the extraordinary cast of characters we worked with at the Center: it was a kaleidoscope of personalities, a thick slice of humanity; or, as Dryden said, “Here is God’s plenty.” The pressures we had been under during the day dissipated as we talked, and our office became an island of laughter in an otherwise dark and silent building.

To this dialogue Herbert made his own contributions:

*     *     *     *     *

“Hi, honey!” he said to me one morning.

“My name isn’t Honey,” I replied, my surprise mixed with amusement. “What is my name?”

“Glenn.”

“That’s right, my name is Glenn. So call me Glenn—okay?”

“Okay!”

But the next morning he again waved and said, “Hi, honey!”

*     *     *     *     *

One day he said to Ellen, “Hi, shit!” then quickly slapped his hand over his mouth. “Oops—sorry.”

*     *     *     *     *

When I first worked in the Toy Department, Herbert was one of my sanders. After a few months he was transferred to the toy painting area, but he would still walk up every morning and stand before me, waiting for orders. “Go to painting, Herbert,” I’d say, and he’d respond, “Painting?” then march over there. Eventually all I had to do was point in that direction. He’d point too, then smile sheepishly, as if to say, “Oh yeah—the same place I went yesterday.”

*     *     *     *     *

In the steelwooling area, everyone might be working quietly when Herbert suddenly called out, “Truck!” Then, a few seconds later, “Rrrrrmmmmm, rrrrrmmmmm!”

“Don’t get too loud, Herbert.”

“Okay,” he’d reply, grinning.

*     *     *     *     *

If Herbert was steelwooling, and I asked him to come pack some glasses, he’d respond, “Yuh!” or “Coming!” As he walked over, he’d clap his hands once and say, “Mush!”

*     *     *     *     *

One day Herbert had to pack several boxes while standing in a narrow aisle between the packing table and some bins filled with glass. “Excuse me, Herbert,” I said, when I had to get past him at one point.

“Back up, Herbert, back up,” he said, as he flattened himself against the bins.

*     *     *     *     *

One time he rapped on the side of the large carton he was getting his packing paper from. “Anyone home?”

*     *     *     *     *

Another time, after packing a box, he flexed his biceps and squeezed it. “Oh! Superman!”

*     *     *     *     *

When Herbert finished packing a box, I might say, “Good work, Herbert,” and he’d reply, “Good work!” Then Cyrus, if he happened to be working nearby, would stretch his hand out, palm up, and they’d exchange gimme-fives.

*     *     *     *     *

Herbert never—but never—asked to use the bathroom; he’d wait for a supervisor or teacher to ask him. At lunch and break, though, Cyrus began to assume this responsibility. After returning from the bathroom himself, he’d sign bathroom to Herbert, who would say, “Yuh!” then go in there. Herbert, who didn’t sign, and Cyrus, who didn’t speak, often sat at the same table.

On the workfloor, if Herbert was squirming in his seat, I’d send him to the bathroom. But if I didn’t happen to notice his discomfort, he’d sit there until he had an accident, or else he’d wait until the last possible moment, then leap from his chair and yell “Shit!” as he ran by me toward the bathroom.

*     *     *     *     *

Herbert and Gail lived in the same group home. Herbert was one of our older clients, while Gail was in her early twenties. At the Center they sometimes sat together during lunch, though they never said much. Instead, Gail would caress Herbert’s neck and shoulders and back while he looked straight ahead, a smile on his face. If a teacher or supervisor put an end to the massage—remember, guys, you’re at work—Herbert would grin like a mischievous resident at a retirement home, enjoying their little rules violation.

*     *     *     *     *

One day Herbert’s shirt pocket was bulging, and I asked if he’d show me what was in there. “Yuh,” he said, pulling out a tiny version of the New Testament and a deck of cards.

*     *     *     *     *

After he finished packing a box, Herbert always wanted to carry it to the storage room. I tried to discourage this, though, because of his back and hip conditions. But on the day of the big move, when the Glass Department went from the basement to the main floor, he refused to be left out. The supervisors downstairs kept sitting him down, but it was a chaotic day, and the moment they turned their backs, he’d sneak off to rejoin the caravan of clients. I was in the storeroom upstairs, stacking things as they arrived, and every ten minutes in walked this crippled but indefatigable gnome, hauling another box full of glasses.

Herbert was the eighth of fourteen children. He lived with his family until age thirteen, then spent the next eighteen years in Boulder. In contrast to the other long-term residents of Boulder, who were either violent or disruptive or both, Herbert somehow came out of there playful and cooperative.

In 1972, as deinstitutionalization was accelerating in Montana and across the country, Boulder discharged him, sending him back home. His parents resented his return, however, and rarely included him on family outings. Instead, for the next three years, he spent much of his time alone, often sitting in a corner, coloring or scribbling or rolling Play-Doh. During meals, he was not allowed to sit at the table with everyone else.

When he was thirty-four, Herbert returned to Boulder for a one-week medical evaluation. When it was time for his parents to pick him up, however, they refused, saying they could no longer care for him. Several weeks later he was sent to Great Falls.

So he came to the Center in 1975. He had been tucked away in an institution, segregated from his own family in his own home, and finally abandoned on the doorstep of Boulder. But the guy just kept coming. He lived in a neglectful world, and the person he might have become we’ll never know, but through it all he was a survivor, and gave abundant evidence of the resiliency of the human spirit.

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